Well, the votes are in, and the count's findings are conclusive: Britain loves ecstasy. The party drug was the real winner last night on Drugs Live, a UK game show where a soldier named Phil, a lady priest named Hayley, and stern-faced We Need to Talk About Kevin writer Lionel Shriver (she's a woman) competed to see who could get the most wasted on MDMA in the name of “making TV history.”
In an experience that will resonate with anyone who’s spent six hours wandering around a Bushwick warehouse with a bleeding tongue searching for their pals first-thing on Sunday morning, our contestants were placed inside a big clunking MRI machine, while Jon Snow read out statistics and broke the bad news that, one day, they might not be able to do Sudoku puzzles.
The priestess reported that the MDMA had disconnected her from God. God had hung up the phone. Hence, we can conclude that there is an interference pattern between God and ecstasy, or maybe just that it’s as difficult to get reception in an MRI machine as it is inside a Bushwick dead-zone covered by an asbestos-filled warehouse.
The soldier reported that he was having a rather fucked up time. Hence, we can conclude that maybe the man leading the experiment—one Dr. Nutt—was wrong with his initial theory that E might be good for helping people overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Lionel Shriver reported that she wished she was having more fun. Hence we can conclude that Lionel Shriver is a slightly dull person to be around on E.
While it might have been lousy for science, it was certainly good therapy for us voyeurs who've suffered through our own terrible E reveries. What people always tend to forget about ecstasy is that it can be as sensitive to setting as acid, shrooms, or anything else that people put in themselves to get outside of themselves. The burden, in those circumstances, is that you're constantly being told you should be having a good time and that your neurons should be popping like Space Dust, when sometimes you just wanna be free to lay face down on the floor and feel bad about your life.
To take us outside the stuffiness of the studio, the show cuts to life on the streets, out where the air is fresh, out where it is "real." First, we met some gays dancing around in hats who were having a great time. And then we met a man named Shabs (pictured above), who was not. Poor, lost, ageing rave-monkey Shabs. Teeth like a mahjong set left in the rain. Nothing flashing behind his eyes save an internal strobe light from his perpetual mind disco. We all know people like Shabs. Their problem isn't with drugs. It's with life.
But really: science, schmience. However great it is that Channel 4 stepped in to fund research that the medical authorities refused to touch, this was nothing more than TV as spectacle, a piece of voyeurism we could all get behind. Half a million people a week take ecstasy, we were reminded, and a lot of those people seemed to be sitting on their couches last night punching their brains into Twitter.
It was like a national drug-taking reunion. Scrolling through the tweets, you could detect more than a whiff of one-upmanship, a suggestion that if you had known everyone in the country about five or ten years ago, well, those were the times, my friend. There were plenty of folks at home talking about how they “should be playing along, looooooool”, but really, they were already. Like the video to the Chase & Status track that Channel 4 used to advertise it, Drugs Live was as much about the ecstasy of nostalgia as it was the nostalgia for ecstasy.
If there was a central finding, then it was that modern-day Britain takes as much pride in rolling as not-modern-day Britain. It’s our one, small, self-regarding vice: the only time we’re really allowed to boast is when we’re talking about how f-u-c-k-e-d we got at that thing that time. If I had a nickle for every version of: “I bet Jon Snow's gonna take one” that was committed to the annals of Twitter, I'd have $17.90—about enough to have a great time with some ecstasy.
Other popular gags revolved around variations on the following punchlines: “This explains why Jon Snow's ties are always so psychedelic;” “God, this is like one long advert for drugs. Think the price of ecstasy's going to triple overnight, innit;” “Right, who's going to go down to the garage and get some Rizlas afterwards?” and its slightly sadder cousin, “Something amusing about an inability to have an orgasm.” We could note here that it would be amusing and/or piquant if they showed Comedowns Live the next night, with a paranoid vicar comforting a weepy Shriver, but that base has been very firmly covered.
Was this the moment at which we all engaged in a “national debate” about the drug laws? It was great TV, but national debates are often more silly than useful. The only people who are “outraged” by things like this any more are newspaper sub-editors. The rest of the population is capable of accepting that the human race has self-medicated for aeons, and will do so for aeons more, while at the same time recognizing the subtle distinction that it might not be cool to have this stuff pouring from every vending machine.
In the Great British way, we'll continue to muddle a middle path legally, while simultaneously continuing to stretch our heroic appetites for psychic turbulence. The man who invented E thought “it would make a good diet Martini.” That was nearly a hundred years ago. The next big chemical breakthrough—the thing that will probably go on to alter your children's chemical makeup forever—could already be out there on the streets and in the clubs, living among us.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes